Dance classes at its worst can be harmful AND at best can be spaces of transformation
photo: Jan-Ming Lee training in Axis Syllabus, Nomadic College, Puglia
Dance has been my lifeline. In times of crises, I suspend cerebral thinking and literally dance it out. My imagination opens, from other places in my body other than my head. Choice widens; I remember different emotions and perspectives. I am supported and reassured. Often, answers come.
But dance has not always been good to me. The dance worlds have not always supported and reassured me. I have been in conflict about the power dynamics of teacher and student especially as I reflect back to the 90s and 2000s when I was growing into adulthood and going to dance classes.
I was around 12 when my dance teacher suddenly told me, ‘you have a crooked spine’. It was during class and she had given me no preparation for such a brutal remark. Following this, she ushered the whole class of girls over to me. As I stood by the ballet barre, she made me bend down and show to her class, my ‘crooked spine’. To her credit, I don’t think she was aware of the damage she was doing to me. She must have genuinely thought that it was ok to call my spine ‘crooked’ and to use me as an effective way to teach the different anatomical conditions that humans can have.
Even so, I am grateful to her that she was the first person to make me aware of my scoliosis, and that led me to confront it for myself. It was just the way she broke it to me, that had an absence of care and deep ignorance of what was harmful to a young teenage girl. On top of this, being a minority (I am Chinese) I had less community and resources around me. This was Hertfordshire, in a very white area where I was bullied for how I looked.
Of course I was traumatized. I began to process it only a few years ago, at the age of around 34. I worked with a somatic practitioner (Pantarei Approach) to turn around the experience of being exposed without my consent. From being an exhibit of so-called ‘deformity’ to finding my own passion in being seen as a dancer, on my own terms – I found a way forward, to show myself as I am. A curvy spine. A dancer with scoliosis, with a spine that can be as expressive and powerful as any other.
It’s been a conflict for me to teach dance up till now, for these reasons – I know the responsibility a dance teacher needs to have. I couldn’t confront it for many years.
Yet these last few years I’ve met curvy spines who are inspirational and so creative. My somatic practitioners have helped me to overcome the pain of the past. And I do believe greatly in the power of dance. I understand how much possibility there is in the artistic and collective nature of the form. It’s just about including the culture of care and discernment, when teaching. It’s just about understanding how we might impact our students and being responsible for that. Especially those who are more vulnerable – marginalised people; children.
I am shaped by the way others imagine me. My imagination is influenced by their imagination. I am constantly reminded of how I look to others.
Yet I can also remind myself of the potential of my own independent imagination. I look at anatomy books and I adapt it to my own felt sense of my inner awareness. I use self-touch and am curious about my relationship to gravity. I want to sense what else is there, beyond what I ‘know’.
My back and my hips look uneven on the outside, and when I’m standing, my hips and ribs seem to rotate in ways that aren’t included in the standard anatomy books. Yet this is all in relation to ‘upright-ness’, and to the posture of standing still. In dynamic motion, in three dimensional space, I can modulate my spine to gravity and the floor in as many ways as I can imagine. My body is not ‘uneven’ anymore and following my unique rotations allow me more flexibility, mobility and choices.
The dance class could be a place where all bodies could have freedom to find their own constellations unique to them.
To hang out in whatever ways feel good in each moment, to feel less pain, and without a hierarchy of how we should look or move. Being closer to the floor; or being in movement instead of stillness; or sounding with my voice; these are all ways that help me to feel myself and to stay pain-free in my body. These ethics can be applied to any dance space; a theatre, a music gig, a houseparty, a festival…
New Years Resolution for 2022, I’m going to teach more dance; and open my imagination to what a diverse dance space can be. I’m going to advocate a culture of care and carve out spaces where vulnerability is a strength. I’m going to aim to teach dance by witnessing each other and being witnessed on each one’s own terms.